Gentrification Part 2 - Botanical Heights East of Thurman Avenue

The residential blocks of Botanical Heights (BH) form a tale of two neighborhoods. East of Thurman Avenue from I-44 to Folsom Avenue you have early 2000s homes largely built by suburban developer McBride Homes (Chesterfield, MO). West of Thurman you have many vacant lots, and original housing stock ranging from occupied to abandoned and crumbling. There is also much new construction and rehabbing going on here. I’ll get to that in Part 3 of this series.

This part of the story will focus on the section east of Thurman to 39th Street. I’ll discuss the mistakes along the way and why this is gentrification in its worst form. Something we should work hard not to allow again in St. Louis.

Or maybe gentrification is not the best word to describe this part of the BH story; a better term just might be urban clearance.

When an institution or group of institutions seek to reset or remove a community from a city, they usually wipe it clean as to try and remove all memory of that place. This was indeed the case with BH or should I say McRee City or McRee Town?

It’s important to discuss the name as the Garden District Commission used renaming as a final tool to wipe McRee Town from the public consciousness. BH is the official city name for this neighborhood, so that is what I call it. Doesn’t mean it’s right, it’s just the way it is. Just like MLK Drive is no longer Easton Avenue, Gwen B. Giles Park is no longer Catalpa Park…I’m over it, I choose to be current and accurate as opposed to nostalgic. I’ll go with BH when referring to the current day, but McRee Town when speaking of the pre-Garden District Commission era.

I’ll get into the name change and some other topics in this part of the story:

  • History of the crime/violence/no-dignity behavior that plagued this part of town during the crack epidemic

  • Reporting on the neighborhood near the time the Garden District Commission implemented the plan to wipe McRee Town off the map

  • A snippet of information I gathered from a former McRee Town resident

  • The name change from McRee Town to Botanical Heights

  • The separation of the eastern section from the western section of the neighborhood via cul-de-sacs and Shoemehl pots

  • Some commentary on the McBride Homes and the look and feel of the neighborhood today

One element of this series is to explore whether gentrification is good or bad for a city like St. Louis. As with most topics, it’s usually a bit of both. Herein lies the tale of the “bad” connotation of gentrification.

Let’s quickly revisit the definition of gentrification from Part 1. The buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, raising property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.

Here, east of Thurman, displacement was the goal, not investment in a place or building. The blatant buyout, the bulldozing of several blocks of brick homes (goodbye history), and then the cheap suburban home builder comes in and works their magic, complete with cul-de-sacs and fences to help separate the new residents from “those” people remaining west of Thurman.

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This is a prime example of nefarious, ham-fisted intentions by organizations including the Shaw Neighborhood Association and the Missouri Botanical Gardens, among others to wipe clean an area that had admittedly become a serious problem for those trying to stabilize the city and improve quality of life.

There are several psychological tools that can be used in urban clearance to denigrate an area and strip it of its history and sense of place. You can cut it off from the most basic of services at the city level. You can offer the current residents you are trying to get rid of a pittance to get lost. You can raze the entire area to remove it from memory and alter it with suburbanization to remove every reminder of the former city. Then, you can finish it off by renaming the area with YOUR name on it to stake claim and show you own it over the former residents. Suburban colonialism seems a better term than gentrification in this case.

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This is exactly what the Garden District Commission did east of Thurman to over 300 buildings, and the city rubber stamped it all. I hope we’ve learned that this is not a sustainable and just way to treat people and city neighborhoods. I hope this is not the “solution” for a huge swath of North City that is in similar conditions as McRee Town was in the 90s.

They divided up the neighborhood into the area from 39th Street to Thurman, Thurman to Tower Grove Avenue and Tower Grove to Vandeventer.

The obvious divide of the McBride and Sons homes to the right and old St. Louis brick beauties to the left was by design. That is exactly what these folks mapped out.

The diverse group of people responsible included members of SLACO, DeSales Community Housing Corporation, Park Central Development Corporation, St. Louis University, St. Louis Earth Day and of course the Missouri Botanical Gardens (among others).

So, why would one of the most beloved institutions in our region, the Missouri Botanical Gardens, and several other institutions that have done good work with sensitive development and rehabs in the city hatch a plan to level a large section of the city and replace it with suburban housing complete with cul-de-sacs and fencing off of the section?

Well, it’s likely because McRee Town was an absolutely dangerous mess. It had spiraled out of control, and there was little to no maintenance and investment by the owners in the area and the landlords had no interest in rebuilding and screening tenants. It was crumbling by the 90s.

It would be revisionist history if I didn’t summarize just how ridiculous this part of town had become from a no-dignity, violent, drug ridden place.

I have personal stories and will include some from the media as well. This is not intended to sensationalize or blame, that is too easy. But it must be known how the residents and rental unit landlords of McRee Town played a part in driving the neighborhood down with ridiculous, irresponsible and illegal behaviors and practices.

The city was complicit as well, and we’ll get to that.

Let’s start with descriptions of McRee Town from the media:

Some exerpts from a 2003 Riverfront Times article on the former McRee Town:

The smell of trash hangs as thick as the humidity. The buildings, most of them boarded and burned, are broken-down monuments to a neighborhood that lost hope long ago. Yet behind the shadows of neglect are arched doorways, stately turrets, brick front porches — simple architectural reminders of a place that once was beautiful and elegant.

McRee Town is still waking up. In a few hours, drug dealers will be waving their arms and yelling at passing motorists, especially those who are white, hoping to make a sale. Cops say most buyers tool down Interstate 44 from the suburbs, take the Vandeventer exit and score some crack in McRee Town, then pop back on the freeway.

No one, especially those living in McRee Town, disputes that the neighborhood needs emergency surgery. In fact, most renters and homeowners are clamoring to get out.
— The Greening of McRee Town - Shelley Smithson - Riverfront Times
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While researching a former punk rock club, Bernard’s Tavern, formerly at Lafayette and Thurman, I ran across a 2014 St. Louis Magazine article by Thomas Crone which interviewed Bill Boll, a musician and concert goer at Bernard’s. His description of the neighborhood:

"The Bernard was in a really bad neighborhood near SLU," he continues. "Cars were always getting broken into, getting their windows smashed and their trunks pried open. People still went there because no one else was playing punk shows.”

Per the Archive of St. Louis Punk:

“By the end of the decade the neighborhood was too dangerous to continuing booking shows. In 1990 (the owner) Bill closed the club and John Green opened a new Bernard Pub at 214 Morgan on Laclede's Landing. The building on Lafayette stood empty until February 4, 1995 when a single engine plane crashed through the roof. Luckily no one in the plane or on the ground were injured. The damage was so severe that Bill had to have the building razed. An empty lot is all that is left of the club today.”

The plane crash aftermath footage can be seen HERE.

The crack epidemic that bled into the 90s was the final straw. You’d be hard pressed to find positive stories on McRee Town toward the end.

And finally, I’ll add my two cents with a personal story of just how bad McRee Town had gotten by the 1990s.

I once witnessed a car speeding erratically down Grand, as they were weaving in and out of cars, they came to the bridge over I-44 and sideswiped a car filled with what looked like first generation African immigrants. The selfish, hateful assholes of course took off after nearly killing these people. They left the car filled with immigrants partially hanging over the bridge. The people in that car were terrified, and the vehicle likely totaled. And of course the people that caused this took off, scared but laughing.

I was much younger then and my testosterone, punk vitriol and moral compass all pointed toward seeking some kind of retribution for the first-generation Americans that were just nearly killed and likely without a car. This was pre-cellphone, so what’d I decide to do? Chase em TJ Hooker style in my Saturn SL.

Today, you’d take a video with your phone and send it to the police/news and help the victims.

I chased these knuckleheads into McRee Town and I had one of those experiences where I knew I was out of my element. There were hoards of people in the streets and they kind of welcomed/enveloped the car and I knew I was on the outs. I yelled and flipped the bird and took off.

Not one of my brighter moments, but I will never forget the recklessness and hate it must take to nearly kill someone and just keep on going…laughing. McRee Town was an utter mess, like no other place I’ve ever seen since I started taking St. Louis exploration serious in the 2000s. It was a safe place for the bad guys to do business.

The neighborhood didn’t take long to fall into the state described above. Looking back at the history, you can frame up that it only took maybe 10-15 years for the neighborhood to go to pot. Some say I-44 was the death knell. The Interstates were very damaging to St. Louis as a whole, add in crack, the cops and politicians cutting it off from the most basic of services and you’ve got a caustic mix.

First a little history on this part of the city:

The area was originally platted out by the French in 1769; back then Grand was far beyond the edge of the settlement of St. Louis.  Fast forward 100 years when much of the area had become property of Mrs. Mary Urquhart McRee, who ended up selling most of the land to a developer in 1888.  A portion of the area was subdivided into McRee City in 1869 and was developed by Mary McRee to take advantage of the horse carriage lines that were arriving in the area (source).

The homes were built starting in the 1890s and continues through the 1930s. The neighborhood was likely quite stable for a couple generations, but it didn’t take long to go to pot. Reporting of the neighborhood being stable up until the 1970s exists, again, from the 2003 RFT article, a quote from a former resident of McRee:

“Until 1973, McRee Town and an area to the east called Tiffany were vibrant parts of the Shaw neighborhood. That changed when Interstate 44 was completed and the two neighborhoods were severed from the stability of Shaw's garden and the elegant homes that surround it.

"When I moved here, we had a drugstore, we had a laundromat. We had a Baskin-Robbins at 39th near McRee," recalls Norma Cox, who bought her home on Lafayette Avenue in 1976. She remembers the day the city blocked the underpass at Thurman Avenue so that traffic could not pass between Shaw and McRee Town. "That's when I knew we were cut off," she says.

Compared to the architectural dream houses across the freeway, McRee's multifamily homes are plain-Jane. They were built in the mid-1890s for workers at Liggett & Myers, once the world's largest tobacco company. Most are large, tall and sturdy; many possess architectural signatures, such as patterned brickwork or stained glass, that make them unique. In 1987 the neighborhood was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of a strategy to attract investment.

It didn't work. Residents continued selling their homes and moving away; some became absentee landlords or sold to people who only came to McRee Town to collect the rent. Buildings were abandoned. A few were set on fire. Squatters moved in and more homeowners moved out.

This patch of urban decay between Interstate 44, Vandeventer, 39th Street and Folsom Avenue became known as the place to buy crack. Eventually McRee Town became a last resort for the poorest of St. Louis' poor, many of whom had been displaced by other neighborhood redevelopment efforts over the years.

"The city's strategy was: Let it rot into the ground. Let it empty out, then knock everything down," says Eddie Roth, who was president of the Shaw Neighborhood Improvement Association the year Jonathan Kleinbard came to the botanical garden.” - Shelley Smithson - Riverfront Times

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There you have it, McRee Town east of Thurman all the way to 39th Street was leveled, renamed and isolated as an island from Tiffany, Shaw and the rest of the neighborhood west of Thurman.

The more I read about this take-over, the more it reminded me of an urban planner trained at West Point. Dramatic for sure, but it really was a concerted effort to choke off the people living in this area, offer them a small amount of money to move and then engage the bulldozers and the suburban developers with no idea how to build in a dense, old city…Schoemehl pot them out and walk away. Botanical Heights it is. Divide and conquer urban clearance.

The worst part of the whole thing is, the street closures. The visual reminder that this part of the neighborhood is separate, distinct, not like the “other” areas. The massive cul-de-sacs and fencing are a visual reminder of the McRee Town-BH transition. They should go.

The corner properties have no commercial buildings, they are vast areas of sparse landscaping.

The neighborhoods of Shaw and BH have a tremendous opportunity to break down some of these barriers. The I-44/Thurman Ave overpass was long Schoemehl-potted, then they upgraded to round bollards to keep the areas separated. Now, with the complete rebuild, there is an opportunity to connect and allow all traffic to flow…you know like a street was built for.

The balls are temporarily moved, will they do the right thing and open the street? Or will they double-down on history and keep BH isolated from Shaw? Will the intricate mazes of impassible streets be the future for BH?

Time will tell.

With the millions of dollars spent on this overpass, would you not want to allow traffic?

But it’s not just bollards, bad planning and poor personal choices that got us here.

There is evidence that the city was complicit in cordoning McRee Town off. I heard about it first hand from a former resident. Here’s how our paths crossed.

When I set out to blog on each of St. Louis’ 79 neighborhoods back in 2009, BH was the neighborhood I chose to start with. I included the following line in that post from 2009:

“This neighborhood was familiar to me from driving by on I-44 for years as a kid. It was my definition of "the slums". It looked like a place where no one had any pride or hope. However, the old homes drew my attention and maybe sparked a curiosity in the formative years that helped eventually draw me to St. Louis.”

Referring to this section as the slums may have been an insensitive description, especially to someone who grew up or lived/lives there. But, it was honest, and I grew up a suburban kid from Belleville, IL, where scenes like McRee Town did NOT exist. Also, if someone asked me to describe or paint a picture of a slum, this scene would have come to mind. It was still a mess in the 90s when I moved here.

Turns out my use of the word slums and supposition that McRee Town was a place with “no pride or hope” upset some. I know this as one person reached out to me via email to let me know he was upset.

I immediately responded with an apology and an offer to talk through it and share his side of the story in this post. He got back to me, thanking me for at least acknowledging him, but defending his stance. I stood by my use of the word slum and explained my perspective. He explained his, and why he doesn’t like reading these kind of assessments. We connected over the phone and he talked for maybe 30 minutes relaying all kinds of stories about his childhood growing up in McRee Town (his parents still live there), and how good of a life he had, but also had to experience the negatives of being choked off.

I learned a lot, but I lost him in correspondence and didn’t get his full side of the story, nor permission to use his name/quotes. I wish we could have finished off the correspondence and righteously include a photo and proper credit for his stories and perspective. It wasn’t meant to be.

But, it’s worth paraphrasing some of the things that stood out from our conversation, most notably:

  • Being a kid is a magical, free-spirited time. Adults looking back on their childhood tend to have fond memories of running around and being a kid no matter where you live. So yes, just because a neighborhood is high crime or maybe even inhospitable to the majority, it isn’t a 100% negative place. Absolute language like “no one had pride of hope” can be construed as insensitive. I’ll try to choose words that are descriptive but not cutting of an entire area. Of course there were good people in McRee Town, they got overwhelmed in the end though…at least east of Thurman.

  • The city was fully complicit in choking off McRee Town. He detailed an experience where a guy got his head blown off by a gun. The murder site was on his walk home from the school bus stop to home and some blood and pieces of brain tissue and skull stayed for days. The cops/EMTs/city didn’t do a complete job cleaning up. They didn’t care in McRee Town. Cops wouldn’t show up when called, trash was not collected. It was cut off, marginalized and de-prioritized.

  • He indicated the payment to move was an insult and took advantage of poor people. He indicated the amount, but I was unable to corroborate, so I won’t include it. It’s not a lot, but could have been ~1.5 years of rent in a one bedroom at the time. By some accounts, the payoff was $8,500 for a standard lot. He was insulted that there was no longer-term support and assistance, just a check and a kick of the ass out the door. In came the demo crews.

This is so old-boy St. Louis. The powerful can just make a few calls and get the politicians and city departments to stop doing their jobs and running an area into the ground. Then it rots, then it’s cleared, the people leave to go who knows where….and in this case, they renamed it and suburban-ized half of it.

There is also documentation of the residents of McRee Town being circumvented in the GDC activities. A fantastic 2003 story by Tim Woodcock, then staff writer at the West End Word. I found the article published on the Commonspace:

“[An] activist told me about how when the Garden Commission first circulated its favored plan, the information went to every person in Shaw and Southwest Garden, the more affluent neighborhoods to the south, that had been vocally wishing there was something less shady on the other side of the highway. No one in McRee Town — no one whose home was going to be torn down — received the first mailing. A glitch in the mailing system, the Garden told the activists at the time, and there was never a problem with mail-outs beyond that. (I asked a Garden spokesman about this incident. He flatly denied it, and went on to tell me how inclusive the "community-based planning process" was and how the Garden followed "due process.") I don't know if the selective mail-out allegation is true, but the fact that it is widely believed to be the case indicates how "inclusive" the process felt if you lived in McRee Town.”

Now, I’m not so naive to trust activist’s stories and interpretations as absolute truth, but you can easily imagine the GDC “following due process”, checking boxes and not taking the time or care to include and retain as many of the good people living in McRee Town as possible, including them in the decisions moving forward. But, the story went on to detail that when the GDC found out West End World was doing a story on their work, they sent a member of a Public Relations firm to meet the journalist and do a tour of the neighborhood. No one from the GDC, rather a PR guy. Hmmmm, that sounds like more “due process” and less community-minded to me. And of course, suburban housing company McBride and Sons never returned calls to tell their side of the story.

Further, from Woodcock’s story:

“I invited myself along to a Citizens For a Fair Plan in McRee Town strategy meeting, and sat there silently taking notes, soaking up the issue. Pretty quickly, it transpired that all of the dozen people around the table were involved with this campaign in some professional capacity. None of them actually lived in the affected area of McRee Town.”

A couple of residents were interviewed in Woodcock’s story, providing a transition to start to wind this part of the story down.

Take 67-year-old Charlie Finley and his wife Louise, residents of McRee Town for 28 years. "A lot of the buildings are rundown and people don't look after their property — I realize that," he said to me. "As for the redevelopment I think the neighborhood needs it. But we should be able to save some of the better homes, those that people have put money into, like we have." Primarily he is at an age where the idea of moving house, no matter what else is offered, is not attractive.”

In June, 2003 the plan was rubber-stamped by the city.

NextSTL called it the largest land clearance project in decades.

In 2004-2005, the City of St. Louis, supported by the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Garden District Commission (GDC), completed the most extensive land clearance project in St. Louis in decades. A practice, thought by many to be a tool of the past was back. In all, six complete blocks of century old brick homes and apartment buildings were leveled for widely spaced 3,400 square foot, $379K, single-family homes on cul-de-sacs.
— Alex Ihnen - NextSTL

So there you have it.

Now for some commentary on BH east of Thurman.

I’m no fan of modern suburban, low-density housing. It’s not why I choose to live in St. Louis and I don’t think it adds any interest to our neighborhoods or city at large. But it did add stability, cleanliness and order to an area that had none of that. They went about it horribly. In my mind this is gentrification at it’s worst.

But now, this part of the city is home to a diverse set of St. Louisans. I don’t want to rip where where people choose to live, I’m glad to have all BH folks as neighbors and fellow citizens. I’m glad they’re happy there. Not everyone wants to pay the insane bills to keep and maintain a 100 year old brick house. I get it.

But, the history of urban clearance/gentrification/suburban colonialism (there it is again) is there.

When you mix new homes with the old, it flows, it complements. But, when you wipe out the old buildings and just do a new “subdivision” you get just that, a neighborhood or subdivision that does not at all blend in with the rest of the city in the surrounding areas.

But the fact is, this part of the neighborhood is quiet, well groomed and cared for. Lots of black families if you were wondering, white’s too. It is not a burden on the area anymore.

The row houses along Folsom are actually quite nice and add some of that much needed variety.

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There are still vacant lots available for more infill. Other builders have constructed homes since McBride.

Sure, it is decidedly low-density and choked off and segregated from Tiffany, Shaw and the rest of Botanical Heights. A suburban oasis right in a former dense, mixed use neighborhood. It’s quiet and safe now, though. Here’s what this section of the neighborhood looks like today:

There is not one business in this part of BH.

Although, I read on UrbanSTL that Narrow Gauge Brewery is planning to occupy a handsome historic building (one of the only ones remaining) at 4006 Folsome Avenue. Hopefully this is true, the building is beautiful.

This building was one taken from a Clayton, MO owner by emminent domain and assumed by “Grand Center Holdings, LLC”. It will be good to get it back in better hands.

Future Narrow Gauge Brewery?

Future Narrow Gauge Brewery?

There is also one of, if not the best, community gardens in BH. The neighborhood is dignified place to live. It didn’t used to be.

So is this gentrification? By definition, yes. But it’s complicated, it’s not white middle class or upper middle class people moving in and slowly taking over or creating white-only spaces.

In my time in St. Louis, the city tends to displace people more by deliberate neglect, choking off resources, policing and investment and letting it rot and doing a little ole “urban clearance” to “save” the area. Land banking and suburban investors sitting on properties for years will make you wanna move away quicker than investment or new class or race different from yours moving in (Paul McKee anyone?). Yuppies don’t seem to be the problem here, urban clearance could be the enemy of St. Louis more than gentrification. Land banking seeks to devalue before it rises back up again.

Yeah, this is gentrification; but, it’s a St. Louis kind of gentrification, one that requires a caustic recipe of government and communities that are on the downturn both doing nothing to help. St. Louis seems to choke off resources to all parts of town that are deemed violent or slums. From the alderperson to the police/fire to the streets and refuse department to everything, the city is complicit in letting an entire area or neighborhood rot and then come in with a plan. The plan usually involves an out of touch, anti-urban, insensitive solution.

When a neighborhood becomes one of the most popular places to buy crack cocaine, as McRee Town was in the late 80s and through the 90s, the city choked it off and let it happen. The neighbors advocated for closed streets and Schoemehl pots to route traffic from the customers exiting I-44 and coming off of Grand to buy drugs and get in and out as easy as possible. Just so they don’t come through Shaw!

Ever seen Season 3 of the Wire? Hamsterdam right here in St. Louis. If you sell and do drugs right here, we will leave it alone, if you come over here (Shaw), we’ll intervene.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch called BH McBride Homes “a success”. There you go, the PR firms and local institutions even got the paper to cheerlead.

So is gentrification good or bad? Well depends on whether you are winner or loser usually. If you are making money on it, then likely you see it as a boon for society and American cities. If you are somewhere in the middle and like gritty, affordable cities, or have racial reasons to think gentrification is a targeted, sanctioned approach to remove one race or class from an area.

I can tell you most of the average citizens and regional folks I talk to say BH looks so much better than it used to from I-44. They still complain about the look of STL from I-70 and the I-44 views of the Gate District and parts west of Thurman…I’ll get to that in the next post.

So how do you not allow history to repeat itself, especially with vast swaths of North City in mind? Leave people alone who own homes that are up to code. Protect them, be kind to them. Ask them what they want. Same for the good landlords of rentals. If they are up to code and not nuisance properties, leave them. If there are owners who have deferred regular maintenance and their properties don’t meet code, offer them low interest loans and a generous time frame to bring the building to code. Make an attempt to keep the current residents where they are, or give them the opportunity to make a handsome profit if they choose to sell at market value once the neighborhood appreciates.

Remove the cul de sacs, connect the streets. This is not a suburban “lane”, this is a goddamn city. Act like one and open this place up to connect the people in the various neighborhoods around here.

When new homes are mixed in with old ones, you get variety, better density, interest…a better neighborhood.

Next part of the story deals with the part of the neighborhood that is west of Thurman Avenue, a completely different story.